I moved from California to Barcelona, Spain in 2009 with my husband and two young children. My husband was offered an interesting position at a Catalan company. We couldn’t refuse the opportunity to live in Europe, to experience life in a foreign country and to have our children learn Spanish. Little did we know at the time, that Catalan is the more dominant language in Catalunya! A year and a half later, my children are trilingual!
The list was long! We moved several times across the United States without a hitch. Moving ourselves, children and most of our household goods to another country was a big challenge. Dealing with bureaucracy and bureaucrats in the United States can be frustrating, but it is usually a clear process. In Spain, the process is extremely frustrating and not at all clear. My biggest frustration was finding reliable information on the various steps of the process and the long length of time it takes to get anything bureaucratic done in Spain. I relied heavily on information from other expats in online expat forums and moving-related forums.What challenges did you face during the move?
The list was long! We moved several times across the United States without a hitch. Moving ourselves, children and most of our household goods to another country was a big challenge. Dealing with bureaucracy and bureaucrats in the United States can be frustrating, but it is usually a clear process. In Spain, the process is extremely frustrating and not at all clear. My biggest frustration was finding reliable information on the various steps of the process and the long length of time it takes to get anything bureaucratic done in Spain. I relied heavily on information from other expats in online expat forums and moving-related forums.
How did you find somewhere to live?
At first, I thought we could handle our home search on our own. We rented a furnished apartment in the center of Barcelona while we looked for a house. We searched housing listings online and contacted properties on our own. We were surprised when people failed to return our calls or emails asking about renting their house. We were even more surprised when we had appointments with owners to see their property, but they failed to call us back with the property address so we could meet them!
After a couple weeks of frustration, we turned to a real estate broker who spoke English and works with expat families. In two days, she booked a full weekend of property showings. We rented the first house she showed us. Unfortunately, we had to pay her, plus the real estate agent of the property owner a large fee. I was disappointed that we couldn’t’t handle the search on our own, but relieved that we finally found a place to live with the least frustration possible.
Are there many other expats in your area?
My neighborhood is mainly Catalan with a sprinkling of other expat families, mainly Northern Europeans. I live in a quiet residential zone near a large forest. Locals have told me that lots of foreign families like to live here because there is more space and less noise than the city center. I have met a couple American and British expats at our municipal gym. However, I wouldn’t call it an expat hot spot like other places in Spain.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
It is a common topic among expats in Barcelona, that getting invited over to a Catalan friend’s house is a BIG deal and quite rare. Catalans are very family-centric. On the weekends, they tend to get together with their extended family or friends that they have had since school. My children go to a Catalan school, so we have more chances to meet locals and thanks to children’s birthday parties get a glimpse into their home life. However, my close friends tend to be other foreigners. While I get along great with my neighbors and local shopkeepers, it will be a long time before one of them invites me over for a cup of coffee!
What do you like about life where you are?
I love learning about Catalan culture, food and traditions. I love the sense of history that always surrounds you as you walk around Barcelona. Cultural activities are very family friendly and affordable, if not free. It seems like every month hosts a different festival with special food and customs. I like that there are foreigners from many different countries here – not only English speaking expats.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Slow bureaucracy has got to be the top of my list. Nothing is clearly laid out on a nice checklist that can be downloaded from the internet. Rather, you stand in a really long line, get a ticket to stand in another long line and when you finally get helped you are told that you need a paper that you didn’t bring because you were told you didn’t need it in the first place.
Perhaps it is easier if you grow up in the system and understand how it works. At home in the United States, there are so many bureaucratic processes that I take for granted knowing how to navigate. Living abroad definitely makes me more compassionate toward immigrants in my own country.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Research. Research. Research.
Never make any assumptions of how something will be handled or solved. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you have children, send them to a local school so that you are more integrated in local customs and meet people easily.
Rent a furnished place at the beginning of your move so you can find the right neighborhood and home before making a big commitment.
What are your plans for the future?
You never know what adventure awaits in life. We really love living in Catalunya and hope to stay long enough to really give our children stability.
Read more about Jennifer’s life in Spain at www.orangepolkadot.com